Most novels set during the financial crisis never leave Lower Manhattan. But Dana Cann’s debut novel, Ghosts of Bergen County, flits between New York City and suburban New Jersey in the summer of 2007. After losing their daughter in a tragic accident, Mary Beth Ferko becomes a recluse, while her husband Gil, a private equity manager on Wall Street, seeks refuge in heroin. Haunted by unanswered questions, Mary Beth and Gil’s grief leads to a series of supernatural encounters, not unlike Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers. The result is a chilling, moving exploration of loss, doubt, and addiction. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from chapter six; Ghosts of Bergen County hits bookshelves this week from Tin House Books.
She sat on a bench, a woman in her midthirties, at the edge of the elementary school playground, where there were lots of women her age, give or take a few years—dozens, in fact, not counting the nannies, who kept to themselves. But these other women, the mothers—distracted by the responsibility of finding their children in the blur of children, by the persistent requests for snacks and playdates, by the injuries that seemed, for certain children, as inevitable as the kisses their mothers imparted on their elbows, by the news from school, the bits of neighborhood gossip, by the cries of the younger siblings, the ones who wanted in (or out of) their strollers—didn’t pay any mind to the woman on the bench. She’d always been one of those people others didn’t approach—an introvert, shy, and though such shyness was often a burden (like at a party), she was grateful for it now.
When she was young, in summer, when other kids would hang out at the pool, Mary Beth had wished for rain. She liked to stay indoors and watch the puddles form in the backyard, where the drainage was poor. People who weren’t shy didn’t understand why someone would rather stare out the sliding glass door of the family room and watch the rain fall than spend a hot, sunny day at the pool with her friends. But other kids learned how to ride their bikes at age five, and write their lessons on the fronts of their papers, so that the hole-punches were in the left margins, not the right. After school, they played on the playground, while Mary Beth was made to take speech therapy, hours of it, so that her Rs didn’t sound like Ws (though Mary Beth thought her speech therapist made her Rs sound like Ls).
People knew better than to talk with the woman on the bench.
When she’d been in law school, in Montclair, her apartment was a mile from campus. It was a safe neighborhood, as neighborhoods go, but her classes were at night. There was a bus she could have taken, but it was quicker to walk. And she did, most nights, along the sidewalks illuminated by streetlamps. Sometimes there were others out, walking in pairs. But there were solitary figures, too, a few jogging, some with a dog on a leash, but most, like her, just walking, from point A to point B. And she noticed how many of these solitary figures were talking on phones. Mary Beth kept a phone in her pocket, and she used it sometimes to call her parents, who lived in Richmond, Virginia, almost four hundred miles away, or her friends from college, some of whom lived in New York and northern New Jersey. But Mary Beth couldn’t help but wonder who these solitary figures were talking to every night, and she began to suspect they were talking to no one at all. Extroverted or not, it was a trick. Open your phone and talk to it and deter the assaults from the other solitary figures. And Mary Beth found she could talk to her phone. She employed a vocabulary for these conversations—one-way as they were—that she believed sounded authentic.
“What?” she’d ask her phone.
Then she’d throw her head back and laugh. “That’s exactly what I told her,” she’d say.
In April, trees blossomed. In May, they leafed. The lower boughs blocked the streetlamps, and the sidewalks became shadowed, darker. There were more people out, though she didn’t feel any safer. By fall she had a new boyfriend, one with a car in the city, who’d pick her up after class and drive her home and spend the night. She liked this guy. He made her better than her prior self, the one who’d pretended to have someone to call after class.
She called him now. (He was her husband.) She dialed his cell, and he answered, “Hey.” She imagined his mouth open, his face in the air.
“Hi.” Her voice gave a little.
“Is everything okay?”
She never knew how to answer this question. After a moment she said, “I’m outside, walking.”
“Me too. It’s a nice day.”
“It is.” She watched the contrails from a long-vanished jet drift like clouds.
After another pause, he said, “I’ll be home early tonight.”
“We could go out.”
“Don’t push it.”
“Okay.” A horn sounded through the earpiece. Three successive taps. “A picnic,” he said. “I can get sandwiches at Nora’s.”
“Really, don’t. I’m out. I’ll be home soon.”
“I’m just tired.” A child screamed behind her.
“Where are you?”
“The School on the Ridge. Everyone’s hanging out. The ice cream man is parked at the curb like a crack dealer.” She tried on a smile. She thought he’d appreciate the joke. Instead he was earnest:
“You should get yourself a treat.”
“The line’s too long.”
She heard his breathing. Probably walking in Midtown. He worked in private equity. He bought and sold companies. She didn’t know which ones. Then a transaction would hit the press, and he’d copy the headline and email it to her under the subject My Deal. He kept secrets well.
“Do you need to go?” she asked him.
It was the last day of school, as Mary Beth understood from the snippets she’d heard—camps, playdates, vacations, fall. She recognized some of these faces and she guessed that some of these faces recognized hers. She held the phone to her ear. “Why don’t they go to the pool?” she asked, but he didn’t answer.
Summer’s arrival made her sad. It wasn’t a routine, exactly, walking up Amos Avenue to the School on the Ridge for the three o’clock dismissal, but it was something she did, more and more, as the weather grew warm. She’d happened by one day in February, with snow still in the school yard, and only a dozen or so students running around, and she’d stood behind the bench where she now sat and watched the children play a game, where the one who was it had to close her eyes and listen to the sounds of the other children as they scampered around the climbing bars. (Their feet couldn’t touch the ground.) The girl who was it tried to tag the ones who weren’t. The game was like Marco Polo, without the call-and-response, substituting the climbing equipment for the swimming pool. And, as in Marco Polo, whichever child was it eventually peeked, because the laws that govern children’s play state that a child shall peek if the rules of the game call for that child to keep her eyes shut. Mary Beth went home that day and made a cup of hot tea and found the website for the School on the Ridge. There was a picture of the school, a list of the staff, and a welcome from the principal.
She clicked on Events and up popped a calendar for the remainder of the school year. There were monthly PTA meetings, a school-wide talent show in March, and performances in April from each grade. She decided on the kindergarten concert, and, on a sunny, chilly day in April, she walked up Amos Avenue in the early afternoon. She arrived at the all-purpose room, where the lunch tables had been folded and pushed to the side and the metal chairs had been arranged in rows. She chose a chair on the aisle. The children filed in, class after class, and sat on the floor between the stage and the chairs. Parents waited with cameras. They waited with fidgety preschoolers on their laps.
Then the curtains parted. The kindergartners stood on risers on the stage. A twitter rose from the audience. Then applause. The kindergartners giggled. Flashbulbs flashed.
These are kindergartners, she told herself. She snapped a picture of the entire ensemble. Then she zoomed in, as far as her lens would zoom, on the group in the middle. Then she swung the lens to stage right. Then to stage left.
A woman stepped to the foot of the stage. She introduced herself as Mrs. Laird, the music teacher. “Welcome to the kindergarten concert.” Mary Beth took a picture of Mrs. Laird, with her students behind her. “The children have been working very hard on these songs welcoming the arrival of spring. We hope you enjoy them.”
She walked to the piano on the floor in front of the stage. She sat on the bench and began to play. They sang songs about birds in blossoming trees, about daffodils and tulips. They sang songs about rain, about splashing through puddles with boots pulled to knees. They sang songs about dandelions, yellow and white, and blowing the seeds on a current of air. They sang songs about turning cartwheels on the new-mown grass and hitting a baseball over the fence. They sang the timeless spring themes of renewal and hope and joy upon which young children have a special claim. It was cute, of course. Some children stood straight and faced forward and sang with their arms at their sides, while others stood less straight and swayed, and others, still, bounced between the shoulders of their neighbors and didn’t sing at all.
No matter. The parents sat in wonder, shutters clicking, videos running, tiny images of their tiny children on tiny screens, and the children in the audience, the ones in the upper grades on the floor in front of the metal chairs, grew bored and were shushed by their teachers, separated from their friends, and separated again.
And Mary Beth began to cry, though she never cried anymore, boosted as she was with eighty-milligram doses. Yet here she was, with a tear in her eye, though not on her cheek. She dabbed it with a tissue. The camera sat on her lap. Then the lens closed.
There was one little girl in a green turtleneck. She wore glasses with black rims. Her hair was cut to chin length, the way Mary Beth wore her hair. The shirt had long sleeves, and the girl had slipped her arms up into her sleeves and out of them so that her arms were inside the shirt and the sleeves swung empty in front of her, not even in time to the music. She didn’t sing. She turned from right to left. Then she spun all the way around to show her friends how clever she was, that she didn’t have any arms, and those around her, those who wished to be distracted, laughed, while others kept singing with shoulders and arms straight.
If the parents had noticed Mary Beth, if they didn’t know the mother of the girl with no arms, they might have thought Mary Beth was that mother, that she was crying because her little girl was ruining the performance. Maybe the girl with no arms was notorious as a troublemaker. Maybe she’d had a difficult birth. Maybe she’d been fed formula instead of breast milk. Maybe she hadn’t been held enough as a baby. Maybe she’d been dropped by her brother. Mary Beth envisaged a strict music teacher admonishing the girl for such behavior. If she’d acted this way during rehearsals, steps could have been taken to rectify the situation before the concert. But Mrs. Laird played song after song. And the other children sang. The girl with no arms was not Mary Beth’s problem. She pulled herself together and clutched her tissue.
There were two elementary schools in town—the School in the Glen and the School on the Ridge, a bit too clever when you considered the town itself was called Glen Wood Ridge. At least the schools’ names (and that of the town) were based on physical and tangible features like geography and elevation and not on the arbitrary naming rights exercised by an influential member of the town council or, worse, a developer. Mary Beth knew about developers. They were her clients when she’d been in practice, a world she left when the baby was born.
Mary Beth and Gil had bought their house on Woodberry Road three years ago, when Mary Beth was six months pregnant. Woodberry was a new street, one that had replaced the last stand of trees separating the older sections of Glen Wood Ridge (the part in the Glen) from the newer sections (the part on the Ridge).
Woodberry conveyed neither wood nor berry but a meandering horseshoe with amazingly precise symmetry observed once you found the satellite image on the Internet. There were four house models arranged in a pattern designed not to look like a pattern. Mary Beth and Gil chose the “Belvedere,” a Cape Cod with fiber-cement siding and dormers on the second floor and a porch with an actual swing. Mary Beth had imagined herself in the Glen, with its small commercial district and its preponderance of wood-framed Victorians and stone Tudors on the narrow streets that intersected Glen Road at funky angles, acute and obtuse, in the parlance of ninth-grade geometry.
But the houses on Woodberry Road were new, with one other selling point: residents could choose to send their children to either the School in the Glen or the School on the Ridge.
And the Glen was where Mary Beth was drawn, at first by herself, then with Gil, then with the baby in the jogging stroller. Mary Beth walked down Amos Avenue, then around the Glen, then back up the hill to Woodberry Road. This was her route. When the baby was twelve weeks, Mary Beth began to jog it, four days a week. The baby hit her milestones—the way babies do—more or less on time. She babbled at ten weeks. She rolled over from front to back at five months and from back to front two weeks later. She could sit on a rug without falling at six months, could clap at seven months and wave at eight months. At nine months she began to crawl. She pulled herself to her feet at ten months, and she said her first word—Hi—at eleven months. She said it a hundred times a day. She said it when she meant hello and when she meant goodbye. It came with a wave and friendly smile. She greeted Mary Beth. She greeted Gil. She greeted any stranger on the street. She greeted her reflection in the mirror.
Milestones were important, Mary Beth had come to learn after the baby was born, because everything was quantified, from the Apgar score at birth (the baby scored nine out of nine!) to test scores in school. But Mary Beth’s favorite milestone was one she’d never read about. Her jogging route took her diagonally across the ball fields at the School in the Glen. One day, when the baby was between eight and nine months, she sang a single note—Aaaaahhhh—that broke into staccato as the stroller’s sixteen-inch tires bounced over the ruts and mounds of the imperfect earth. Mary Beth began to laugh, so much that she had to stop running and catch her breath, and the baby stopped singing and then she began to laugh. Then Mary Beth started up again, and again the baby sang her single, staccato note. And this staccato song became a regular part of the jogging route.
And then, before the baby turned one, the milestones ceased because the baby died.
Mary Beth jogged her regular route—across the ball fields at the School in the Glen. Sometimes she had to prompt the baby to sing, but the baby always sang. On this particular morning she sang without prompt, and Mary Beth raced across the fields to the baby’s delight. At the far end was Lyttondale Avenue, which intersected, a half block farther, with Amos Avenue, at one of the Glen’s funky intersections—acute or obtuse, depending on your direction. For Mary Beth it was obtuse, and it required her to cross Lyttondale to begin the ascent up Amos Avenue to Woodberry Road.
There was a sidewalk on Lyttondale—there were sidewalks on all the streets in Glen Wood Ridge—but Mary Beth wasn’t on it. She was on the street, running against traffic, one tire in the gutter near the sloped curb, looking for an opportunity to cross. She glanced behind her, over her right shoulder, and waited for a truck across Lyttondale to pass. The truck slowed, and she thought for a moment he might stop and wave her over. A lot of drivers were good about yielding to pedestrians. It helped to have a stroller. But the driver of the truck hesitated, then continued on. Once he was by, she nosed the front wheel out. But she’d been preoccupied by the truck, frustrated by its hesitation, its slowing and not yielding, and she hadn’t noticed the car going up Amos Avenue that was now turning right onto Lyttondale. The blue hood blurred. There was chrome around the headlights. A thud, a jolt she felt in her arms. One moment she was holding the stroller’s handlebar and the next she wasn’t. The black bumper grabbed the front tire and dragged the stroller sideways. Then tipped it. The car stopped. The bumper released the stroller. The car waited, and Mary Beth watched, breathless, her arms in front, fingers curled to the approximate, loose circumference of the handlebar. The police report would say the car dragged the stroller thirty feet. It felt like three hundred, like it would take forever for Mary Beth to close the distance, even in her spandex and running shoes, even with her adrenaline pumping. Then the blue car steered around the stroller and sped off. And still Mary Beth couldn’t move. The stroller’s green awning looked like a discarded umbrella lying in the street. It was a sunny day. She couldn’t see her baby. She couldn’t hear her baby cry.
“You’re still at the school?” Gil said.
She sat on the bench at the School on the Ridge, children running circles around her. A game of tag. It had been some minutes since either Mary Beth or Gil had spoken. He was walking; she was sitting. “It’s crazy here,” she said. “I’m going to get past this line of kids.” She almost called out, Excuse me! for the sake of authenticity, but she didn’t wish to call attention to herself.
“So, I’ll see you tonight,” she said instead.
“Early. I’ll see you then.”
She closed her phone. Once she would have said, I love you. Three words. She would have made a point to say them.
It was past three thirty now. There was no sign of anyone leaving. She stood and looked for the girl with no arms. She did this from time to time, when she came to the school at dismissal. She put her flat hand over her eyes like a visor and scanned the crowd. She looked behind the bench, where children were scrambling up and down the hill to the side of the school. Little girls who wore glasses were few. She could find none now. She hadn’t seen the girl with no arms since the kindergarten concert. Maybe she took a bus home after school. Maybe her mother picked her up and whisked her away to an appointment for vision therapy or psychotherapy or occupational therapy. Maybe she was at home being punished for a poor report card in the final marking period. Maybe she watched TV after school because she had no friends. Maybe all the TV she watched accounted for her poor vision and inappropriate behavior.
“Who are you looking for?”
Mary Beth looked down, where a girl in pigtails stood squinting up at her. She was one child, by herself, no one Mary Beth knew or thought she knew. She clutched her phone in her fingers. “Catherine,” she said.
“Oh.” The girl squinted harder. “Who’s Catherine?”
Mary Beth realized her face was contorted. She could feel it now, as the girl regarded her. She often wished she could get outside of herself so that she could see what she was really like. She let her muscles go. She tried on a smile. “My Catherine.”
“I don’t know Catherine.”
Mary Beth held her smile. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” The girl turned and ran across the field.
Ghosts of Bergen County by Dana Cann
April 27, 2016
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.